A Letter to My Fifteen Year Old Self
What I would tell my younger self about panic.
Posted Sep 10, 2011
When I first heard that I'd be blogging for the anxiety section of Psychology Today, I got anxious.
Because I'm not a psychologist, I don't work in the field of health care, I'm not comfortable on the floor of a psych unit, and I can't prescribe meds.
In fact, I can barely remember what it feels like to have a panic attack, although I've had hundreds of them in my lifetime.
But maybe that's the point. Maybe I've truly healed from the panic disorder that haunted me from the time I was 15 years old. Maybe I've rewired my brain, connecting it to my body in a powerful new way. Maybe I really do have something to teach people.
I certainly hope so. Especially since I wrote a whole book about my experience and am about to go onto the Today Show to discuss it. I'm about to go out into the world telling everyone how much better I feel, how much healthier I've become, how I transformed myself from a neurotic Jew into a serene Tibetan monk. Or at least a suburban monk in a minivan, now able to shop in supermarkets without fear that buzzing fluorescent lights will set my central nervous system on fire.
I used to be afraid to live my life without a disaster plan. I used to carry a flask of vodka around with me in my pocketbook, in case I felt a panic attack coming on. When the telltale signs - pounding heart, closing throat, galloping lungs and sheer terror - snuck up on me, I could duck into a bathroom, take a swig of fiery vodka, and wait for a warm glow to bathe my petrified lungs and slow my entire body down.
I suffered my first panic attack when I was a fifteen year old waitress. Of course I didn't know it was a panic attack; nobody ever uttered the word back then. Nobody talked about anxiety disorders or spilled their guts on national television. So I had no idea what was happening to me when I showed up for work and then almost died. One minute I was serving dinner to college students in a cafeteria, and the next minute a bolt of electricity clobbered my heart, lungs and central nervous system. I broke into a cold sweat. My whole body shook. My pulse raced so fast I thought my chest would explode.
And I couldn't breathe.
I was sure I was dying, although I was only fifteen. A terrified teenager. A girl who didn't even know the meaning of the word anxiety. A girl in need of a good therapist, a wise healer, and some effective medication.
I was lost.
Over and over again, for the next forty years, I tried to find my way out of a panicky, terrified body and into the world of healthy, happy people. Into a world where those people joked about having a panic attack when they didn't see their favorite item on a restaurant menu. Into a world where alcohol was used to celebrate happy occasions. Into a world where people could go to classes, run errands, sit through business meetings, movies and dinner parties without being afraid they would go crazy. A world where people could enter a subway, car or an airplane without worrying that they would die. I longed to live in a world where a bottle of pills was not the only thing I could rely upon to keep me sane.
Librium, Valium, and Klonopin.
So did talking to a therapist. Or two. Or three.
So did a wonderful husband. Healthy children. Kind friends. A successful career.
And the book I wrote about learning to breathe.
Never in a million years did I think I'd ever write a book about my journey from constant panic to true inner peace.
And if you'd told me I'd be writing anything for Psychology Today about anxiety and panic, I would have laughed.
But now that I've been healed by skilled therapists, teachers, and my own educated brain, I'm going to write a love letter to my fifteen year old self.
On this blog, I'm going to write about all the things I wish people had told me when I was young and scared, when I was sure I was a freak, the only person on the planet whose body betrayed her, whose mind was a mess, and whose soul was in need of a hug.
I'm going to teach all the terrified women and men out there - young, old and in between - how much we can all heal.
This will be fun.
Thank you for coming along with me.